Innovating in a bigger pond: McMaster's engineering dean heads to California

Paul Wells talks to Ishwar Puri about California versus Canada, the changing nature of education, and what happens when the worlds of politics and research collide

Academics come and go. But the news that Ishwar Puri, the dean of engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., is moving to Los Angeles to become vice president of research at the University of Southern California caused a stir in Canadian university circles.

Partly it’s the scale of the challenge Puri’s been handed: USC’s research budget is close to $2 billion in Canadian dollars, a 40-fold increase over the research budget at Mac’s engineering school. Partly it’s because Puri will be a hard act to follow. At McMaster he designed The Pivot, an overhaul of undergraduate education to favour interdisciplinary, project-based approaches that put a premium on cooperation and fresh thinking in problem-solving.

That transformation is really only beginning at Mac. Now Puri is going to become a key player in the much larger U.S. innovation ecosystem. I decided to give him a call. His observations on research, education, politics, and the various ways the three can collide and interact, made me glad I did. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

California is a bit of a homecoming for you, if I understand correctly?

Yes, my wife grew up there, and I met her there in 1985.  [Puri’s BSc was from the University of Delhi. He earned Master’s and PhD at the University of California, San Diego in the 1980s.] We left in 1990. So yeah, it’s a bit of a homecoming. She’s more excited about it than me. I’m going there really for the professional opportunity.

Did COVID have anything to do with it? A sense that all options were open? And if you could be anywhere, you might as well think about where anywhere could be? Or was that just coincidental?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t think I have to think much about that. I think that what COVID has done, paradoxically, is it’s made mobility easier. Pre-COVID, if people were recruiting you, you’d have to fly down, you’d have to take a couple of days, there were a few intensive days of interviews, visits, lunches, dinners, and so on. But with COVID and video conferencing , people have become much more accessible. [Before,] I certainly would have sort of scratched my head around my schedule, how I go down there, you know, take a Friday off for the weekend, and so on.

Like the opening act of the dance is a little easier.

Yeah. Yeah.

How much bigger a job is VP research at USC compared to engineering dean at McMaster?

I can answer that quantitatively and qualitatively. I think both are very enriching jobs. Dean of Engineering at Mac is a fantastic job. It was amazing. It’s probably the best job in Canada. What Mac has allowed me to do is it’s allowed me to innovate in education and research. And you know, there are many examples of that. So in terms of scope, McMaster engineering has about 6,000 students, about 200 faculty members, maybe 300, maybe another 150 staff members. The yearly budget is approximately $100 million, with about $50 million worth of research.

At USC, the job is different. VP research means that you don’t spend your day so much with students, but you spend it with scholars. You spend a lot of your time enabling the work of star scholars and thinking about getting interdisciplinary teams, because that’s where the future lies, when you think about grand challenges, like climate change, sustainability, COVID-19, the opioid crisis and so on. So currently, the USC’s, externally-funded research budget is close to about $700 million. And they also have philanthropically supported research, which makes it about $900 million. And they’ve hired me to double that in about seven years. So it’s a big job.

Is more of that going to come from the Biden administration, private sector, or foundations and philanthropy?

I would say all of the above. I think Canada and the United States have just about the same amount—in proportion, not in terms of totals—of government-funded research, and state/ provincial funded research. I think the difference is that there’s a lot more business investment in research in the United States—in California in particular. And there’s much more investment of philanthropy in research. So I think those buckets are going to be bigger than what I’m used to over here. But I would say that the government-supported buckets, proportionally, are about the same.

Is Los Angeles far enough away from Silicon Valley to be a challenge? Or, or is all of California booming?

There are different aspects in different areas. California, in terms of landmass is smaller than Canada, but has a population almost equivalent. I’m particularly interested in innovation and startups. There’s room in California for multiple sites. If you think of Silicon Valley, I mean, it’s huge, right? But Los Angeles has a sector called Silicon Beach, which is around Santa Monica, and south of there. And Silicon Beach also has tech companies, but there’s a lot else going on there. There’s biotechnology companies. Advanced manufacturing—SpaceX is headquartered there. So the opportunities are different. In Silicon Valley it’s just tech, tech, tech. Whereas Silicon Beach and its surroundings are probably tech with a basket of other opportunities. So it’s like making portfolios. This is a much more distributed strategy. Which is attractive, because then you can do things across disciplines. You can get creative types involved, you can get people involved in discovery, there are different people who research different things. And some people are just solution providers, you can get them involved. You could have a very creative ecosystem that you could build. And that’s what excited me about the opportunity.

On a vastly larger scale, that’s the sort of thing you’ve been trying to do at Mac, right? Build teams to tackle problems, both on campus and then out in the community.

I think what Canada has taught me is the village concept. As Canadians, we’re not arrogant. You can pick up the phone or send an email and connect with just about anybody. And so making connections between institutions, between Mac and the community, and even reaching out to government officials is pretty straightforward. At Mac, we’ve completely changed the way teaching and learning occurs. There’s this industrialized model of teaching and learning where you bring in students, it’s almost like a production line, you put 200, 300, sometimes more in a classroom. And then you just give them some multiple-choice tests. And either they pass through or they don’t, it’s quality control, they go to year two, and so on. And in the end, you put some of them in a box, tie a ribbon and say, “Hey, you’re fit to go in the world.” What I’ve done is I’ve led a complete change where we now teach with very few lectures. We do hands-on, minds-on learning. We brought in project-based learning. In real life, when you solve a problem, you don’t say it’s a chemistry problem, or it’s a history problem, or whatever. You’ve got to fix stuff, or you’ve got to create stuff. So the whole idea was to make students more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary. And also to make them more creative.

So that was one. The other is expanding the research portfolio. We almost doubled it. There are researchers today at Mac who are tackling electric cars, for instance. There’s a startup that has come out of Mac, which just got $15 million worth of VC [venture capital] funding. So Mac has been prescient in allowing these things to happen.

I wanted to ask about the notion of a national security test for grants in one of NSERC’s [the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council] programs for collaborative research. I know some researchers are nervous about that. Are you one of them?

Yes and no. I mean, for the past two or three years, we’ve received guidance. So there will be CSIS officers who’ve gone to universities and spoken to various individuals, warning us about foreign actors. I was also a previous Chair of Engineering Deans Canada, which is the body of all the engineering deans, and we’ve discussed it. And the nervousness we had there was that everything was vague. There was no explicit guidance. It seemed to be, “Don’t work with foreign actors from, you know, one geographical area or another, but mostly China.”

The implications of that were not clear to us. Can we work with Chinese scientists? I mean, there is some value to open science, right? There’s a difference between the Chinese government, the Chinese people and Chinese scholars. The guidance was not explicit. We asked for more explicit guidance. But as with everything, guidance leads to paperwork, right? What I’m nervous about is, how swiftly can that paperwork be done? How much time is it going to take to do the paperwork, particularly if I’m working with a partner, will they be patient enough to wait? So things like that.

You have dealt with Liberal and then Conservative provincial governments, and Conservative and then Liberal federal governments. Are there general lessons that you’ve drawn, or that you wish that they would learn? What’s the story of your work with the two levels of government over time?

It’s quite clear to me that researchers can’t really control the narrative of government investments, because governments make decisions based on sound public policy, and also based on political considerations. And sometimes those are at loggerheads. I think researchers can try and influence the course of those decisions. And in influencing the course of those decisions, the conversations really start with the civil servants, who are then able to present those decisions up the chain of command, and so successfully as you go up the chain of command, you might actually talk to the political appointees or the elected people in government. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that we have very broad-minded and dedicated civil servants, but their actions are constrained by the public policy and the politics. I don’t think that we can ever do away with the politics, because governments like to look good. But I wish governments relied more on sound public policy than just political decisions. But you know how it goes.

Where would that take them that they’re not now—if they were to pay more attention to policy rather than PR?

Canada bats above its weight when it comes to basic research and discovery. The tri-councils like NSERC [the main federal granting agencies that pay academics to do research] are just top notch. And what they do is that rather than have a winner-take-all approach, instead of giving huge grants, they give small grants to researchers for long periods of time. Many jurisdictions don’t do that. The United States doesn’t do that. So the success rate in Canada is high. You get researchers involved, very few fall by the wayside, very few of them dry and fall off the vine, so to speak. In terms of talent generation it does a great job. And Canada has very broad-minded immigration policies, much more so than many other jurisdictions in the world. So Canada produces top- notch talent.

I think the challenges for Canada, however, are twofold. And these are these are not a secret. I think successive governments have been trying to address them. One is that business investment in research is low in Canada. It’s difficult to get large business investment in research. And the second one is, governments have talked about innovation and governments have spent money on innovation, but the innovation strategy needs honing.

There’s, for instance, talk about a DARPA-type agency in Canada, but people don’t realize that DARPA is a mission-oriented agency. It’s there to further the interests of the Department of Defense. And if there’s a better way of defending the United States, there may be collateral benefit in the internet or in some other technologies. I think that having mission-oriented agencies that tackle grand challenges may be useful. I mean, we talked about climate change. But if you put out a call for climate change mitigation proposals, you probably get proposals in 1,000 topics. So what is it that we want to do in the future? Do we want to sequester carbon? Do we want a hydrogen economy? Do we want more nuclear reactors, and each of them has a public policy implication. With nuclear reactors, there’s the NIMBY problem. Is that really going to happen? Do we want hydrogen? Do we have that infrastructure? Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas—how are we going to transport it? Thinking about these from a public policy lens is important. You know, I’m very vested as a Canadian citizen, as someone who’s interested in the future of Canada, and one of my sons is going to stay back here. I’m interested in his future, and if he has children, grandchildren, I’m invested in their future. So I think, from that point of view, we need to be much more focused on how we drive innovation.

I guess I see a contradiction. NSERC works because it doesn’t try too hard to pick winners. But you’re suggesting at the macro level, picking winners, or certainly picking priority projects can be useful for innovation.

I think we need a more mission-oriented approach. So climate change—you know, if you think about it through a basic science lens, you know, for a basic scientist to do a long-term study, which would involve five years or 10 years, that’s going to get us to the gate too slowly. I mean, if you think about COVID, if you think about the opioid crisis, all of these things are not just research and NSERC’s domain. It’s not just science. It’s not just engineering. You’ve got to involve the social scientists in there. You involve the historians, I mean, there are histories of pandemics and so on, we’ve got to learn from the past in order to project to the future. So we don’t have those mission-oriented research calls, which would involve a variety of different disciplines coming together to solve a particular problem.

Ontario went from a government that was conspicuously pro-science to one that’s more populist. In Ottawa the process was reversed. Is it easier to work with a federal government that has a minister of innovation? Is it easier to work with Kathleen Wynne than with Doug Ford?

That’s a good question. I would say that as a researcher, you’re at the bottom of the string, right? Somebody else’s yanking it, and you just have to make do. And there are opportunities in both ways. So the current Ontario government is putting a lot of money into research that will lead to jobs. So manufacturing, for instance, you know, Ontario wants to hold onto its manufacturing base. So institutions have to pivot. Some institutions pivot really well. And some don’t. From the researcher point of view, of course, it can be frustrating, because one day the emphasis is on A and then the next day the emphasis is on B. So A feels like a loser, B feels like a winner. But then the pendulum swings again. And so at the individual level, I think researchers are frustrated. And you see that on social media and so on.

But I take a much more pragmatic view about it. I think most governments realize we need talent, we need jobs, and that you’re competing on a global stage, right? So the automotive industry needs to succeed, it needs to innovate, it needs more electrification, more software. So even a government that’s very populist and jobs-oriented is going to pay heed to that. The federal government doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed again with a pandemic. The biotechnology or the biopharma industry was devastated over the last couple of decades in Canada, and it’s trying to revitalize. So there’s an opportunity there.

What I’m saying is that there are opportunities. But researchers get frustrated for various reasons. One is they’re doing legitimate work, which interests them, which is of value to society—and one day it’s funded and another day it’s not. But at the same time, I’m going to get myself into hot water, but some researchers are just not able to pivot, right? When society changes, maybe you need to change your worldview also, and say, “Well, yeah, I was doing that, but maybe I need to do something else.”

You talked about the devastation of the life-sciences sector in Canada in recent decades. Sometimes I’ve heard people reduce that to the selling of Connaught labs 30 years ago. It sounds to me like you’re talking about effects that are much more recent.

Yeah, sure there’s a history, but I’m more interested in global currents. I think that if it was profitable to do research in Canada and get results, regardless of the closure of one lab or another, the industry would have stayed here. But I think that there are buffeting international winds that make companies move from one jurisdiction to the other. We just need sound public policy to understand that. For many of these things, there’s no silver bullet, there’s a basket of answers which provide a solution. So I think government investment to help rejuvenate biopharma is going to be important. I also think sound policy goes into realms that are not scientific. It goes into realms like taxation. It goes into land use, it goes into even municipalities, how they zone and how they don’t.

What did you make of the latest federal budget as a response to these challenges?

Well, that’s a hard one, right? It’s a pre-election budget. And as I said, there’s public policy, and there’s political considerations. As a researcher, you know, I’m at the end of the string that somebody else is tugging, but my job is to climb up that string. What do researchers and scientists want in a budget? I mean, if you go back to the Naylor report, they want like a doubling of research funds. I wish that would happen. But that hasn’t happened. So what you try to tease out in the budget is, how can I maximize what I can get out of the budget? You know, it’s a pre-election budget, it’s pandemic budget. So I’m going to be generous and say there are opportunities.

A very different kind of question: How did the fact that Donald Trump was the president of the United States for four years affect your job at Mac, if at all?

It helped Mac. Most provinces in Canada are cutting back on provincial support for education. And it’s no secret that the post-secondary education sector relies now on international students to raise revenue. Because with tuition freezes, and with state support essentially capped—so declining every year, if you take inflation into account—and costs rising, it’s no secret that international students basically fill that void. They help keep the universities and colleges running.

So when Donald Trump became the president and he issued various executive orders that limited mobility to the United States, Canada was a big winner. Everyone realizes that. Canada became a preferred destination in the Anglophone world. Coupled with Donald Trump’s election was Brexit and Boris Johnson. Often, it’s not just what governments do—what they say is important. And one of the things that we should be thankful for is that the Canadian government and officials said all the right things. Tolerance and respect for human rights is and should be a hallmark of Canada. No nation is perfect and I think as Canadians, we’re also imperfect. But I think our union is better because we’re trying to create a more perfect country.

If Trump’s administration inaugurated a brain gain for Canada, is that now over with the election of Biden?

Hard to say. The United States is very complex. I mean, Biden can do certain things, but his authority is hamstrung by what he can pass through the House of Representatives in the Senate. And rhetoric matters. We think of Canada as one huge ecosystem and the United States is another huge ecosystem. But we sometimes forget that the ecosystems really have micro ecosystems, right? So the ecosystem in Ontario is not similar to that in Quebec, for instance. You could wear a headscarf if you were an Ontario official, right, or a kippah if you were if you were Jewish, and you were a provincial official. Likewise, in the United States there’s a difference between the ecosystems in California, one in Vermont, and let’s say Alabama and Louisiana, right? So, hard to say how it will play out. I think Biden’s election makes the United States more attractive. But sometimes there’s a reputational damage that [persists].

Now, moving to California: bigger sandbox, bigger budget, bigger society. Are there commensurate challenges?

Oh, sure. You know, you make plays, right? So one play is helping improve discovery, so that 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road, somebody gets a Nobel Prize. So that’s a very fundamental play, and it’s a risky play: you make it today, but the implications are legacy implications. The other play is the innovation play, right? Bigger budget, but you still have to make bets. The innovation plays you have to make, is, you know, you invest in something that brings out a product that changes society. And I’m not being facetious. Google came out of a PhD thesis of two students at Stanford. So when I say life-changing, I’m not being facetious.

So how do you make these bets? And how do you make sure that they succeed? I mean, the bigger bets you make, the more the pressure for success. And then there are some safe bets, the talent bets, where you recognize that the purpose of research is not just the output of the research—the papers they write or the Nobel Prizes or the innovation—it’s actually the talent that comes out, the human resources that come out. And there, you have to be a little prescient. I mean, today’s the age of AI. But if you bet on AI, you know, the talent that’s coming out, they’re going to emerge in about four or five years. Is that going to be still a good bet? With AI, I think it’s a safe bet. But there may be other areas in which you make bets, where society may have fundamentally shifted. So those are the kinds of things I worry about. If there’s any advice I have for myself, and I repeat it every morning, it’s stay humble. Stay humble. And being a Canadian allows you to do that.